As Americans gathered to celebrate their country’s 246th birthday this year, they were in a foul mood. They increasingly loathe and fear one another, and an astonishing three-quarters of them think the United States is on the wrong track. Everybody can find compelling evidence for their views, meanwhile, because the country is going in several directions simultaneously. Abortion used to be legal, while same sex marriage and marijuana were not. Now it’s the reverse. Racial identities used to be seen as constructed while gender identities were fixed. Now it’s the opposite. And so on down the line.
With all the changes happening, it is only natural to look for historical patterns and seek guidance from the past on where the country will go next. But it turns out that not only is the past itself in dispute, the whole notion of historical patterns is a mirage.
This wasn’t always the case. A generation ago, some thought the end of the Cold War signaled the end of History. The failure of communism and the success of liberal democratic capitalism, the argument ran, showed that certain systems were better suited to human nature than others, and so in the long run, the world would trend in that direction.
But three decades later, the future seems harder to predict. China has gone from strength to strength, not bothering to liberalize much along the way as it was supposed to. Instead of accepting its defeat and getting with the times, Russia has returned to its old tricks—although the past it is currently replaying is Imperial rather than Soviet. The European Union, the world’s great experiment in transnational federalism, has splintered rather than consolidated. And the United States itself, supposedly leading the caravan of progress forward, has swerved off the road and barely escaped crashing.
History with a capital “H” may indeed have ended, but if so, it is in Wagner’s sense rather than Hegel’s. Today we are like the Norns at the beginning of Gotterdammerung. The skein of time has broken in our hands; we can no longer read the future because the old world of stable grand narratives has given way to unpredictable human chaos.
From Ancient to Modern
The ancients thought history was static or cyclical. There was no progress; nothing ever got better. As the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it in his Meditations,
Look at the past—empire succeeding empire—and from that, extrapolate the future. No escape from the rhythm of events. Which is why observing life for forty years is as good as a thousand. Would you really see anything new?
Christianity gave the human play a second act but located it offstage, in another sphere. This life might be a constant round of suffering, it said, but there was a better one to come afterwards—where the damned would get their due, as would the blessed. For a thousand years after the fall of Rome, the Christian view ruled the West, building around itself an elaborate civilization. Life was lived in a seamless web of interconnected authority: family, village, and feudal lord; a distant king above that; a more distant pope beyond; and God in heaven ruling over all. The stable human microcosm mirrored the stable celestial macrocosm; nothing changed because the order was eternal.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the medieval worldview broke down as Protestants challenged the Catholic Church and brought the heavenly future forward. Your fate in the next world might be predetermined, they argued, but it could nevertheless be perceived by your actions and circumstances here on earth—so you might as well reveal your predestined election through your behavior and accomplishments. As a result, the political theorist Michael Walzer has written, the primary task of the Calvinists
was the destruction of traditional order. But they were committed after that to the literal reforming of human society, to the creation of a Holy Commonwealth in which conscientious [political] activity would be encouraged and even required. The saints saw themselves as divine instruments and theirs was the politics of wreckers, architects, and builders—hard at work upon the political world.
The future could be different from the past, they believed, and better. And people’s actions could show that better future. From there, it was only a short step to drop the divine aspect of things and conceive of historical progress in purely secular and material terms—which is just what thinkers did in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
From Modern to Post-Modern
The Enlightenment philosophes valued reason over faith and empirical enquiry over custom and tradition. They were devoted to human improvement and turned their skeptical eyes onto everything from physics and medicine to politics and economics. Yet even as they jettisoned the Church, they kept its historical eschatology, its sense of a better world to come. They simply followed the Protestants in bringing the concept forward into this world while swapping in human for divine agency. As the historian Carl Becker observed,
For the love of God they substituted the love of humanity; for the vicarious atonement the perfectibility of man through his own efforts; and for the hope of immortality in another world the hope of living in the memory of future generations.
Rejecting the doctrine of original sin, Enlightenment writers argued that humans were good, or could be made good, or could at least be confident that their private vices would combine to yield public benefits. Reason would triumph. Checks and balances would keep free political systems stable. An invisible hand would guide free markets to produce economic growth and material bounty.
By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this new mode of thinking, along with the growing economic and social transformations it helped generate, had toppled the ancien regime and ushered in the modern era. Unfortunately, however, the rationalist projects did not always work out as planned. The French Revolution started out as liberal, moved into terror, and ultimately led to tyranny, followed by the restoration of the old monarchy. Industrialization and capitalist development created vast inequality and hardship along with untold wealth. Increasing mass political participation saw the triumph not of reason but of collective passion and new secular religions featuring nationalism and political ideology.
The first half of the twentieth century proved to be an unprecedently destructive sequence of war, depression, and more war, and among the casualties was faith in any sort of progress. For the philosophes, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 made a mockery of the notion that a benign deity was running things well. Two centuries later, the gulag, the death camp, and the bomb did the same for human management. Meanwhile, Newtonian order was superseded by quantum uncertainty. Linear clarity in art and literature gave way to anarchy. And philosophy eventually followed suit. By the time postmodernists declared the modern era dead in theory, its demise was already evident in practice and belief.
And Now for Something Completely Different?
At the end of the second millennium, however, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, together with the emergence of digital technology and the new economy, temporarily gave an old narrative some new credibility. With America’s unipolar moment stretching into unprecedented hegemony, Enlightenment liberalism, of all things, appeared to be riding high once again. It seemed that one system had indeed emerged from the fray triumphant—a combination of free politics, free markets, and free societies that offered hope for the kind of sustained progress the philosophes had assumed was human destiny. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world was more peaceful, prosperous, free, and democratic than ever. The good things were indeed going together and reinforcing one another. Fukuyama’s argument had some evidence behind it.
Then, of course, everything went south. Free markets led to greater inequality, financial chicanery, and economic crisis. Free politics produced populist backlash and democratic regression. Free society dissolved into warring tweetstorms and competitive cancellation. And as the United States lost its way, China continued moving forward, becoming an ever-stronger global force in an ever more post-American world. Today, therefore, the future is cloudy once again. If not necessarily at a turning point, we are certainly in an ideological interregnum, and where history will go next is an open question.
One possibility is a continuation of recent trends, with a Chinese century following the American one. In this world, Beijing manages to overcome its looming demographic and political problems while amassing still more power and influence at the expense of an exhausted and internally divided West. Another possibility is the reverse—a world in which the United States pulls itself together and finds sources of resilience and renewed dynamism while China’s economic growth stalls and its authoritarian political system falls into crisis.
The march of science and technology could continue apace, eventually producing a “singularity” in which humans lose control and artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, and other sci-fi wonders render the future unrecognizable. And still another possibility is ecological collapse, in which untrammeled growth and material consumption overwhelm the planet’s carrying capacity and turn earth into a giant version of Easter Island.
The most probable outcome for the next few decades, however, is all the above combined. Both China and the United States have vast power, large internal markets, strong civilizational inertia, and deep problems. Both are therefore likely to muddle through rather than triumph or implode. Both technological advances and environmental destruction will continue to accumulate, but not so quickly as to trigger revolution (at least for a while). Nuclear weapons, finally, are likely to keep great power war off the table while globalization and economic interdependence continue to produce both connection and discord.
In such a world, the long battle among competing historical grand narratives would end with a whimper, not a bang. None of them would triumph, but none would be abandoned either. All would receive a Scottish verdict: Not proven. This resolution shouldn’t surprise us because the past debates have never truly been resolved. In fact, they’re not even past. Walk around any good-sized city these days and you’ll still meet Stoics, Catholics, Protestants, liberals, socialists, nationalists, postmodernists, and many others, all uneasily coexisting while they wait for History to deliver its final judgment.
Interestingly, this was always liberalism’s back-up plan—living together with some degree of mutual toleration while the great debates continue, agreeing to disagree over ultimate ends while getting on with the infinite diversity of life here and now. But it has always been hard to build an emotionally satisfying or politically enduring movement on the wonders of negative rather than positive liberty, and today’s absence of a strong center is unfortunately par for the course. So, a truly durable interregnum is unlikely too.
In short, all those people worried that America is not going in the right direction are correct. Nor is it going in the wrong direction. It’s just going. The only tracks in history are the ones we choose to make.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
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